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Ste. Anne’s veterans recall WWII experiences and horrors of battle

Martin C. Barry

Although they both served their country with valour during the Second World War, the wartime experiences of two Canadian veterans differed widely. Olier Déry was 15 in 1940 when he started hanging around the relatively new Dorval Airport, where military aircraft were being prepared for transport to the battle front in England. In those days, it was easier, it seems, for a young guy with a taste for adventure and military life to get his foot in the door.

“I started in the canteen,” says Déry, 85, a former CP Rail brakeman who now resides at Ste. Anne’s Hospital for Canadian veterans on Montreal’s West Island. Soon pilots taking aircraft aloft on test runs were inviting him up for a spin. By the time he was 18, he had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he was designated as an LAC, a former ranking for aircraft maintenance personnel.

“I got to see my aunt,” he says of the time he spent near London. Called upon to take part in night-time surveillance from rooftops, Déry recalls seeing the bright trajectories of “tracer” ammunition fired from British positions at German aircraft flying in during air raids.

From a distance, he saw the effects of the many V-1 flying bombs that rained down on London, taking thousands of lives and causing untold damage. In the end, he avoided becoming a casualty himself. “It’s stupid,” he says of war. “You’re destroying everything, you’re killing a lot of people, and when they come out of it, the ones who survive are in really bad shape. It makes a lot of people suffer.” Gerry Hemlow, 91, a retired factory worker, served in the Royal Canadian Engineers, a branch of the Canadian military’s land force. Much of their task was to put into place the many bridges that were necessary for the Allied forces to penetrate Nazi-occupied Europe. Hemlow, who was in his early 20s, endured the stresses of being under artillery attack in Holland and France.

WWII veterans Gerry Hemlow (left) and Olier Déry

“A lot were killed and badly wounded,” he says. Fortunately, the only service-related injury he suffered was a hernia, sustained during training in Canada. However, he acknowledges that for a while he was affected by the carnage he witnessed.

“When I came back from overseas, I didn’t want to speak of it. But now many years have passed and it’s much less on my mind. The war is over 63 years and a person forgets. I never helped to build the Bailey Bridge across the Rhine River, but I stood guard there and did maintenance work on the bridge. I wasn’t there, but there was big loss of life right there in the engineers.”

More than 400 veterans, most of whom saw service in the Second World War and the Korean War, live at Ste. Anne’s Hospital. Many other veterans receive medical treatment on an out-patient basis. Several hundred Canadian veterans of more recent conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda and Haiti also receive treatment at Ste. Anne’s. For Veterans’ Week, Nov. 5 to 11, the hospital is staging or taking part in a number of activities, some of which will be open to the general public.

On Friday, Nov. 6 at 10:45 a.m., a Souvenir Ceremony, organized in conjunction with the Royal Canadian Legion, is being held in the hospital auditorium. (A special pass is required). On Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 10:30 a.m., veterans from the hospital accompanied by dignitaries will attend a Remembrance Day ceremony and wreath-laying at McGill University. This event is open to all.



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